Thursday, March 16, 2017

Seven reasons to remember Ina Coolbrith

1. She was a woman of firsts. Ina Coolbrith was California's first poet laureate; the nation's first state laureate;  the first woman in America to write a commencement ode for a university (University of California, 1871); Oakland's first public librarian; and one of the first white children to come into California over Beckwourth Pass in the Northern Sierras.

2. She walked to California from Illinois. At age 11 she came to California by covered wagon on the Overland Trail, a fact that inspired one reviewer to dub her a "bad ass."

3. She escaped polygamy. Although she was a niece of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, she wanted nothing to do with polygamy. At age 16, she told her teenage cousin Joseph F. Smith (later the sixth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints):
"Is it right for a girl of 15 or even 16 to marry a man of 50 or 60… I think I see myself, vowing to love and honor, some old driveling idiot of 60, to be taken into his harem and enjoy the pleasure of being his favorite Sultana for an hour, and then thrown aside, whil’st my Godly husband, is out Sparking another girl, in hopes of getting another victim to his despotic power. Pleasant prospect, I must say. This, Joe, this is of God, is it? No, never, never, never!"
4. She chose not to marry again after her husband tried to kill her. At 20, her jealous husband came after her with a six-shooter. She divorced him, changed her name, and moved to San Francisco. When her friend John Muir tried to play matchmaker, Ina sent Muir a poem to
Courtesy of University of the Pacific Library
stop his attempts:

"...The earth may quake, the heaven fall, 

The ocean fail, or (thought appalling) 
I may never wed at all! 
But this is certain—write it down— 
Or if you smile, or if you frown,
I do not want your Mr. Brown."

5. She flirted with the idea of same-sex marriage. Ina was a little bit in love with writer Charles Warren Stoddard, but eventually came to accept his preference for men. Once she did, she turned the tables and told him that a woman had taken a liking to her. "She is as fond of me, I verily believe, as you are of Fred." She then proposed a double wedding with she and Mrs. Flint, and Stoddard and his young pal Fred.

6. She mentored the young Jack London and Isadora Duncan as Oakland's public librarian. London later told her, "No woman has so affected me to the extent you did. I was only a little lad. I knew absolutely nothing about you. Yet in all the years that have passed I have met no woman so
Courtesy of Oakland Public Library
noble as you." Isadora Duncan wrote in her memoir, "The librarian was a very wonderful and beautiful woman, a poetess of California, Ina Coolbrith. She encouraged my reading and I thought she always looked pleased when I asked for fine books."

7. Ina didn't let age deter her from pursuing her passions. At 78, she moved to New York to write poetry and to be near her protégée Carl Seyfforth, a young and handsome concert pianist. She wrote enough poetry to fill a final collection.